Iconic spiritual leader Sri Sathya Sai Baba passed away at Puttaparthi in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh on Sunday morning, leaving behind millions of mourning devotees in India and abroad, and a sprawling system of educational, medical and philanthropic services that has huge resources at its command. He was 85.

He had bravely battled complications of the heart, lung and kidney for four weeks. The end came at 7.40 a.m., after 28 days of intense anxiety among his followers and frenetic activity by doctors of the Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Medical Sciences (SSIHMS). The medical team gave him expert care but could not save his life as multi-organ failure set in. After his admission to the hospital on March 30, a cardiac pacemaker was implanted. As his condition deteriorated, doctors put him on a ventilator system and on dialysis.

The formal announcement was made by SSIHMS Director Dr. A.N. Safaya. He declared in a statement that the spiritual leader “is no more with us physically. He left his earthly body due to cardio-respiratory failure.”

A few hours later, the body was shifted in an ambulance from the hospital to the Sai Kulwant Hall in Prashanthi Nilayam, about 7 km away. The mortal remains will be kept in this huge and ornately decorated hall, regularly used for congregations and for Sai Baba's elaborate birthday celebrations, on Monday and Tuesday for devotees to pay their final respects.

The body will be interred in the hall on Wednesday, April 27, around 8 a.m.

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Kiran Kumar Reddy, who flew into Puttaparthi along with Governor E.S.L. Narasimhan, declared State mourning for four days and a holiday in Anantapur district on Wednesday. He said Sai Baba would be given State honours at the funeral.

As news of the demise spread, thousands of devotees began thronging Puttaparthi. There was chaos on the narrow Gopuram Street leading to Prashanthi Nilayam. Police personnel had a tough time controlling the surging crowd at the gates of the ashram.

It became apparent after some time to the authorities that the decision to keep the body in the Sai Kulwant Hall instead of at the 50,000-capacity stadium in the town would pose difficulties in managing the crowds whose number during the next three days is expected to reach nearly five lakhs.

A host of national and State leaders, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Vice-President Hamid Ansari, BJP leader L.K. Advani, and several Governors and Chief Ministers condoled the death of Sai Baba.

A steady stream of leaders, including Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa, BJP president Nitin Gadkari, Punjab Governor Shivraj Patil, former Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan, Tamil Nadu Deputy Chief Minister M.K. Stalin, Telugu Desam Party president N. Chandrababu Naidu and Praja Rajyam president K. Chiranjeevi, reached Puttaparthi to pay their respects.

The future

After the passing of Sai Baba, a vast empire spread across Puttaparthi, Bangalore, Kodaikanal, Hyderabad, Chennai and Mumbai, and overseas centres, needs to be administered as effectively as before. The spiritual guru was the Chairman of the Sathya Sai Central Trust that manages funds pouring in from devotees across the globe, as well as the affairs of a string of service and spiritual organisations.

The Trust, which has as its members well-known persons such as the former Chief Justice of India, P.N. Bhagwati; the former Central Vigilance Commissioner, S.V. Giri; former IAS officer K. Chakravarthi, who is the Trust Secretary since 1994; and the former CII president, V. Srinivasan, has now to select an eminent person acceptable to the devotees to chair the Trust.

This is no mean task, considering numerous reports of internal differences between Sai Baba's relatives, particularly his nephew R.J. Ratnakar, a member of the Trust, and some other Trustees.